Sporting world shocked by charges against inspirational athlete Oscar Pistorius

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News that South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius had been charged with murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, on Thursday came as a shock to nearly everyone who had heard the runner’s inspirational story of his struggle to become the first double-amputee ever to compete at the Olympics.

Pistorius, now 26, was born without fibulas and and had to have his legs amputated below the knee at only eleven months old. That didn’t stop him from competing in rugby, tennis, and water polo while growing up in Pretoria, before being introduced to running in after suffering a knee injury.

Fueled by his competitive spirit and riding on his new racing “blades,” fitted for him by prosthetist Francois Vanderwatt, Pistorius went on to win gold in the 200m at the Paralympic Games in Athens only months after starting to race, and then finished sixth in at the 400m able-bodied national championships the next year.

He won the 100m, 200m, and 400m Paralympic world championships in 2006, and then set his sights on qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. One problem: Pistorius had a number of detractors, including world record holder Michael Johnson, who suggested that his disability was actually an advantage, since the runner raced on specially engineer carbon fiber limbs.

“I know Oscar well, and he knows my position; my position is that because we don’t know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetics that he wears it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors…

“Oscar sees no limits; he has no fear when competing against able-bodied athletes. So it is hard for people to understand and to accept when you start to talk about whether or not he may have the advantage.”

The IAAF, track’s governing body, agreed, and banned any device using springs, wheels, or any other device that might provide an advantage in 2007, marking Pistorius ineligible for the 2008 Games.

Pistorius eventually won a reprieve with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in April 2008, which, after a two-day hearing in Switzerland, determined that Pistorius held no advantage and was allowed to compete against able-bodied runners.

“Oscar’s done so much for Paralympic sport and I’m grateful for all the eyes he has opened to what Paralympic sport can be,” British Paralympic gold medal sprinter Johnnie Peacock, who started racing after seeing Pistorius on TV, told the London Telegraph.

The “Blade Runner,” as he’s now known, didn’t qualify for the Olympics in 2008, but was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people after winning the right to compete, and signed sponsorship deals with Oakley, Nike, Thierry Mugler, and running blade manufacturer Ossur, in all totaling nearly $5 million.

Now able to compete against the world’s best, Pistorius became the first double-amputee to win an able-bodied world championship medal when his 4×400 relay team took silver in Daegu in 2011. And despite failing to run the necessary Olympic “A” standard qualification time twice, the South African Olympic Committee announced last July 4 that Pistorius had been selected for the Olympic team for the 400m and 4x400m relay.

Two months later, on August 4, 2012, Pistorius became the first double-amputee runner to compete at the Olympics. And better than that, he took second in his preliminary heat with a time of 45.44 seconds, a season best that put him into the semifinals.

“It just felt really magical,” Pistorius said. “If I could predict what it would feel like or imagine beyond my wildest dreams, this was probably 10 times that. To step out in front of a crowd this massive, it’s a mind-blowing experience,” he added. “I’ve had support in the last couple of days like I have never felt before.”

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Pistorius was knocked out in the semis, finishing eighth in the race. After the event, the South African symbolically exchanged racing bibs with Kirani James of Grenada, who eventually went on to win the gold.

“This whole experience was amazing… to step out here in an Olympic final is more than I could have ever hoped for,” Pistorius said after that race. “That opportunity to come here once again and finish today and not yesterday is a dream come true.”

The inspirational athlete was asked to carry the South African flag at the Olympics Closing Ceremony as a tribute to his struggle and success, and went on to earn two more Paralympic golds a month later.

Katie Ledecky leads loaded 200m freestyle final at nationals

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Katie Ledecky easily had the top time in the 200m freestyle heats at the USA Swimming National Championships on Wednesday morning, setting up a loaded final at night.

Ledecky, already qualified for worlds in the 800m and 1500m frees, swam 1:55.87 on Wednesday morning in Indianapolis.

She’s joined in the final by Olympians Melanie Margalis (1:57.27), Leah Smith (1:57.61) and Simone Manuel (1:58.00) and Mallory Comerford (1:58.39), the surprise 100m free winner Tuesday night.

USA Swimming Nationals, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, determines the U.S. team for the world championships in Budapest next month. The top two per individual event are in line to make the team, plus up to the top six in the 100m and 200m frees for relays.

Wednesday finals are at 6 p.m. ET. NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will air coverage from 7-8 p.m.

SWIM NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | Event Schedule/Results

Ledecky is down to her last two events of nationals, a meet for which she did not fully taper. She’s already on the world team in the 800m and 1500m frees by winning the 800m free by nearly nine seconds on Tuesday. She will likely be on the 4x100m free relay, too.

If Ledecky finishes top two in the 200m free and the 400m free (Friday), she will be in line to contest six events in Budapest, her busiest schedule yet at an Olympics or worlds. In 15 career Olympic/world events, she brought home 14 golds and one silver.

In the men’s 200m free, Olympic bronze medalist Conor Dwyer barely made the final in the eighth and last spot by .12. Townley Haas, who had the fastest split time in the Rio 4x200m free, led the qualifiers, which also included Olympic 100m freestyler Caeleb Dressel in third.

Olympic 100m breast champion Lilly King led the qualifiers into the 200m breast final. King, who failed to make the Rio 200m breast final, clocked 2:24.68, ranking her 13th in the world this year. Olympians Katie Meili and Breeja Larson join King in the final.

Olympic silver medalist Josh Prenot and eighth-place finisher Kevin Cordes highlight the men’s 200m breast finalists.

Kathleen Baker, a Rio 100m back silver medalist, set a personal best in the 200m back by eight tenths to lead the qualifiers into that final. The two Rio Olympians in the event — Maya DiRado and Missy Franklin — are not competing at nationals.

Olympic champion Ryan Murphy and fifth-place finisher Jacob Pebley safely made the men’s 200m back final.

MORE: Missy Franklin: ‘What if I’m never as good as I was?’

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Danell Leyva’s gymnastics streak ends as he pursues acting

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When Danell Leyva trained gymnastics, he needed to devote 100 percent of his time and effort to become a triple Olympic medalist.

“Now that I’m acting, I’m doing the same,” Leyva said recently. “One hundred percent of my time and effort and focus is surrounding acting and the acting world.”

That leaves no time for gymnastics.

Danell Leyva‘s run of 10 straight years competing at the senior U.S. Gymnastics Championships comes to end this summer. Leyva doesn’t really see himself returning to the sport, but he’s also not ruling out.

“It’s hard. It’s hard on the body, a lot of different factors,” Leyva said. “But I feel like [pursuing acting] is what I should be doing now. I feel really happy doing what I’m doing right now.”

Leyva moved from Miami to California in December, four months after bagging two silver medals in Rio. He signed up for acting classes, filmed two commercials (one already aired), appeared in a Nickelodeon show and was a choreography consultant for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

Biggest of all, Leyva bought and opened a production company with one of his managers.

It’s called “Parallel Entertainment,” an obvious homage to Leyva’s best gymnastics event — the parallel bars — where he won the 2011 World title and a 2016 Olympic silver medal.

They have a few shows in development stages already.

“The dream is to definitely make movies,” Leyva said. “I have to set big, lofty goals. Otherwise I can’t keep myself motivated.”

He found similarities between athletic and dramatic pursuits.

“Gymnastics is hard for the sake of being, in my opinion, the hardest sport in the world,” he said. “To make an Olympic team is insane, and to be able to say that you’re part of the few percent that actually won a medal is definitely even harder. That goes exactly the same with acting. Do you know how many actors there are in the world? Just to be in a movie is an immense accomplishment. Imagine being nominated for an award, any award.”

If Leyva does return to the gym, the Cuban-American will resume one of the greatest careers in U.S. history.

Leyva’s accomplishments include a world parallel bars title, an Olympic all-around bronze medal in 2012 and then Olympic silver medals on parallel bars and high bar in a 90-minute span in Rio. He has everything except for an Olympic title.

Which does he savor most? He can’t choose.

“The all-around medal was bittersweet because it wasn’t higher than what I thought it could be, but it was my first Olympic medal,” he said. “The world title was bittersweet because of the fact I was doing so well in the all-around [two days earlier], and I decided to see what the high bar tasted like. Then the two [silver] medals back-to-back [in Rio]. High bar I will say was a little disappointed in myself because I should have stuck that landing [Leyva had a small hop [usually a one tenth deduction] and lost by .266 to Fabian Hambuechen].”

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